Film Friday: Ralph Nelson's 'Lilies of the Field' with Sidney Poitier

By Daniel S Levine,

Sidney Poitier remains one of the most striking men to grace the screen. Everything about him is iconic, from his intense performances, expressions and that voice. But while we may remember him best for In The Heat Of The Night or Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?, his Oscar win came for a performance in a film on a much smaller scale, 1963's Lilies of the Field. The win, which came for just his second of two Oscar nominations, made him the first African American man to win a competitive Oscar.

Lilies of the Field, based on William Edmund Burnett's novel, isn't as well known as many other Poitier pictures and may just be seen today as a footnote in his career. Yes, he really should have won for his stunning performance alongside Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones, but remembering Lilies merely as the film that gave him his Oscar is a serious disservice to this charming film.

Poitier stars as Homer Smith, a wanderer who goes from town to town in search of work. In between stops, his car overheats and he needs to get water from an old woman's well. However, it turns out that the old woman is actually the head of a group of West German nuns. Homer makes the mistake of mentioning that he's looking for a job, so they suggest he repair their roof. He easily accepts, hoping to get some quick cash. But they can't pay him with money and he refuses to leave until they can. So, they keep piling on more and more jobs, until eventually convincing him to build them a church from the ground up.

Along the way, he learns to actually like these women, even though he's a Baptist and doesn't care too much for religion. He learns to like the idea that he is needed and the nuns learn that the outside world is there to help them, not put them down.

Poitier's performance in Lilies is nuanced at best. He is the only major star in the film, which already makes him an outsider in a cast of largely unknowns. However, unlike other films headlined by Oscar-winning performances, Poitier is not on a whole other level. He feels as much a part of the cast as Lilia Skala, who plays Mother Superior (and earned an Oscar nomination herself), and the other actresses. Poitier's supporting cast is as good as he is.

Producer-director Ralph Nelson's work should also not be ignored. Nelson, who also made Requiem for a Heavyweight and Charly, perfectly captures the simplicity of the tale with a stark, black & white image. This is not a film to be made in color, which would have only hurt the sense of desolation the audience gets when we first see where the nuns are and how far away from civilization Homer finds himself.

Lilies of the Field might be seen as nothing more as a small, rather silly film by today's standards, but Poitier’s performance is Oscar worthy. That's not because he's forced to carry it all by himself, but because he works so well with everyone else in it. The film is the story of a man learning how helpful he can be to others and how a group of immigrants can become a part of this country. Amazingly, Poitier was never nominated again for a single performance and didn't win an Oscar again until his honorary award in 2002.

Poitier is a true legend, and I can say that having seen him in person. The respect and admiration he has received over the past decades is more than deserved. While Lilies of the Field can never be considered one of his greatest works, its position in history and the role it played in his career can never be forgotten.

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